Friday, March 12, 2010

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

Rated: PG

Website: Official Alice in Wonderland site

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, voices of Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen

My Review: Alice, oh Alice. I wanted to love you. I was predisposed to love you. I love your original stories, your 1951 Disney animated classic, and especially your trippy 1985 made-for-TV series. But alas, I do not love you. Though, I do not hate you. I do not anything you, because you are about as mediocre and run-of-the-mill as you could possibly be.

For those who, like me, were instantly excited about this new version of Alice when they thought they would get to see Tim Burton’s darkly weird take on the classic tale, prepare for disappointment. Rather than retelling the familiar story, Burton has created a new story for Alice. She’s now 19 and quite dissatisfied with the stuffy upper-class adulthood she’s being pushed into. Once again, she follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole to Wonderland (or “Underland,” as it’s supposedly actually called, though never clearly explained why). All the familiar characters are there (and some less familiars, taken from the less popular Alice book, Through the Looking Glass), but Alice doesn’t remember them, and is convinced it is all just a dream that she’ll soon awaken from.

Her spotty memory is a bit of a problem, as everyone has been anxiously awaiting her return. Since she left her original visit to Wonderland, the evil Red Queen has taken over, decimating the land, and causing everyone to live in a state of constant terror. A prophetic scroll has appeared from somewhere, deeming Alice to be the only one who can save them all and restore Wonderland to its former glory. Naturally, not believing that any of it is real makes her a bit hesitant to get involved in the saving of Wonderland, causing an upset for the locals.

I find myself hard-pressed to find anything to say about this new Alice in Wonderland, because I feel like precious little actually happened in the movie. So much time is spent on Alice wandering about in a daze, wondering “is this real, is it not, have I been here before, etc.” and on various Wonderland characters arguing with each other over whether she’s the “right” Alice or not (the Mad Hatter says ‘yes,’ the Dormouse says ‘no’). With such a merry band of weirdos to work with, I don’t understand why Burton turned the movie into a drawn-out meeting of a high school debate team.

There are also several bizarre character directions taken (and I mean nonsensical-bizarre, not Burton-bizarre). As the White Queen, the Red Queen’s nicer sister and the true ruler of Wonderland, Anne Hathaway looks stunning, but acts like Snow White on acid. She speaks in a lilting little-girl voice, while constantly floating her arms around, as though she’s mesmerized by their existence. Every scene she appears in is strangely distracting, in the worst sort of way. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is also taken in an odd direction. Rather than appearing loopy and, well, mad, he’s more like a manic depressive who forgot to pick up his prescription. And I hate the costume choice that was made for him; the pale face, orange fright wig, and wonky green contact lenses did absolutely nothing for me.

The best parts of the movie seem to involve the non-human characters. The Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) is fantastic, as he smoothly melts in and out of scenes, dispensing his own special brand of nonsense wisdom. Alan Rickman’s hookah-smoking Caterpillar is underutilized, but is a standout when he does appear to offer insight in the form of riddles. I even enjoyed the appearance of the Bandersnatch, a snarling beast in the Red Queen’s army who has no voice, more than most of the speaking characters. At least the Bandersnatch actually does stuff!

Bottom Line: Surely not the worst version of Alice in Wonderland out there, this is still a far cry from the best. And it’s quite possibly one of the least Tim Burton-y of the Tim Burton movies, which does is a great disservice. Given his early-career love of the dark, twisted, and macabre, Alice seemed like it would be right up his alley, but his direction went astray somewhere. I don’t know if he tried too hard to make the story his own, or if he lost his edge in keeping everything family-friendly, or what the hell happened, but this trip to Wonderland was one I wasn’t disappointed to discover was all just a dream.

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